Anxious Objects

According to Suzi Gablik (author of the excellent book Has Modernism Failed?), the term “anxious object” was first used by art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe modern art that forces us to question whether or not the work is genuinely intended to be art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

The earliest example of  the anxious object is a 1917 piece by Marcel Duchamp called Fountain, which is nothing more than a signed porcelain urinal. Today the work is considered by art historians to be a landmark of the avant-garde. At the time of its exhibiting, however, the piece left audiences feeling bewildered and disturbed.

This is typically the reaction we have in the presence of anxious objects, because the uncertainty we experience demands some limit to the artist’s credibility. Duchamp himself later admitted that placing a urinal in an art gallery was something of a joke. If something is not instantly recognizable as art, then how do we reconcile the creator’s intent as anything but subversive?

Duchamp t-shirt with urinal on the frontInterestingly, the cultural estrangement sought by Duchamp resulted in an unexpected outcome: a new dialogue on how we interpret aesthetic beauty. Some critics, in fact, have favorably compared Fountain to the sculptures of Brancusi and Moore. When it comes to anxious objects, we miss the point while simultaneously (and often tragically) reinforcing it.

This comes to mind because of two stories appearing last week about Twitter, one of them involving the always provocative Kanye West. Mr. West, already known for controversial boasts proclaiming his power and intellect, declared himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” after his set at Glastonbury. The response on Twitter was swift and judgmental, not unlike the vitriol observed when it was leaked that Mr. West had “discovered” a rising new talent named Paul McCartney.

Kanye West on stage at Glastonbury, boasting that his is the greatest living rock star on the planet

What is the social motivation that arouses people into action and gives direction to behavior? While the kudzu-like expansion of Kanye West’s limitless ego may provide wonderful fodder for the TMZ generation, the rationale dictating his behavior is not as easily explained. Our metric for evaluating social motive is often distilled to bizarre justifications. While employing such labels as narcissisticdelusional and outrageous, we openly wonder if Mr. West has a personality disorder and pick apart the structure of his upbringing to explain the inexplicable.

The opinion here is that Kanye West, and his accomplishment as an artist, is simply a manifestation of the persona he intentionally cultivates. In today’s Buzzfeed fueled media landscape, the public life he chooses to expose takes the form of an anxious object. The same motivations that drive all elements of fantasy—magnificent achievements, sexual striving, recognition of power by others—are fundamental to the uneasiness we feel as his story unfolds. The ambiguous and unstructured nature of his outbursts contributes to a growing suspicion that deliberate, cultural resistance is what the calculated art of Kanye West represents.

Subversive tendencies run both ways; if one can maximize higher meaning from something that is not actually a work of art, then it must be possible to reduce artistry from the intention to create. This appears to be the case with a series of Twitter posts reportedly tweeted by the CEO of Frito Lay this week.

According to a story on Medium, the CEO meant to type his tweets into the Google search bar of his browser. Apparently, he didn’t realize that he was actually releasing his search queries in a public forum. The result was an amusing (yet unconfirmed) snapshot into the mind of one of the food industry’s top executives.

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What is a Frito?

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: How to be a chips company CEO

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What's the lowest you can pay a potato farmer

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: buy chips on iPhone

It’s possible that the story isn’t true (and it’s difficult to confirm, given that the tweets have either been deleted from the Frito Lay Twitter account or never existed in the first place). If true, however, it can be viewed as a brilliantly self-referential example of an anxious object. Although the tweets are uncomfortably close to being a parody, our archetype of the technophobic, egocentric business leader permeates the suspicion that this story just might be authentic. It might even be good marketing for the Frito Lay brand, given the otherwise stale environment of corporate social media.

All forms of art have the same inherent challenge: determining how much effort is required on the part of the artist to be taken seriously, and to what degree we as an audience are rewarded for pursuing the journey. A culture’s durability often rests upon the interpretive balance between the two, and blurring the lines has never been easier or more immediate.

Artists throughout history have played our tendencies as a social agent, thus promoting their conceptual output in order to suit the demands of the era in which we live. The caricature of celebrity is a textbook example of the indistinguishable demarcation between creator and concept. “We have always had the historical choice of either lying through or living through our contradictions,” said sculptor Carl Andre. “My ideal sculpture is a road.”

Update: according to Boing Boing, the Frito Lay CEO tweets have been generally confirmed to be satire. When the above post was written, the word “satire” did not appear on either of the two articles reporting the story. One might argue that shrouding the line between satire and reality is, in execution, an anxious object depicting another anxious object. Modern art goes meta.

Growing Up in Public

Two years ago, a letter writer to the Sunday New York Times Magazine submitted the following question to a column called The Ethicist:

“Many of my friends on Facebook are having babies. Nearly every time I log on, I see (in my news feed) many pictures of these babies, almost to the point of oversharing. Now, I love babies and feel it’s acceptable to post a photo from a holiday gathering or a first picture of a newborn. But when this happens every day from a specific acquaintance, is it a violation of the baby’s privacy?”

The relevant question here isn’t whether an infant has a legal right to prevent her/his likeness from appearing online (that’s another story for another post). Of interest here is our compulsion to telegraph ourselves through the Internet, which remains one of the most polarizing aspects of social technology. How much information is too much information?

May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it to be on Facebook.This is not a diatribe against Facebook. There is nothing more wonderful than catching up with old friends or enjoying the kindness of our extended network. It’s digital cross-pollination at its best. However, there is also something disconcerting about our weirdly obsessive tendency to document the self-measured events of our lives. We want the world to know what’s happening because the events that we report are uniquely ours. And yet, what we choose to reveal creates an interesting dynamic regarding the amount of tolerance we assume to have among our personal relationships.

It’s not uncommon to use social media to celebrate our personal successes or milestones. Facebook, in particular, is an easy jumping-off point for others who want to find us online, so we naturally want to put forward our best image. In a sense, the fairy-tale digital marketing that one does is not that different from other behaviors conducted offline, such as when we put on our best clothes for a job interview. The everyday anxieties that plague our self-esteem and performance retreat into the background; up front, we are confident and successful.

George Costanza in Seinfeld clearly oversharing his worst assets.
George Costanza in a famous Seinfeld bit, clearly oversharing his worst assets.

In many ways, the Facebook post has become a sort of interstitial greeting to confirm our continued relevance on the planet. If we don’t hear anything from a friend or follower after a period of time, Facebook allows us to “poke” that user into providing us an update. Perhaps we’re genuinely concerned by the silence and just want to be reassured that everything is fine. Or it could be that we’re seeking some sort of balance: I posted seven updates this week, so the least my friends could do is let me know that they’re still alive.

Facebook status saying "Our marriage is over"Sometimes, though, the tendency to reveal too much creates an uncomfortable blurring of social boundaries. Consider the case of Michael Ellsberg. At the end of July 2014, Ellsberg posted to his 25,000 followers that his marriage was breaking up. His former wife, Jena la Flamme, posted the same message on her wall. Publicly breaking the news about their divorce represented what journalist Hannah Seligson called “managing the marital brand, even after its dissolution, creating and honing their message much like a corporate news release.”

The psychological motivation behind this behavior, according to a team of researchers in North Carolina, is the predictably narcissistic desire for acceptance. Among 515 college undergraduates and 669 adults profiled, the study showed that the rate at which a person tweets or updates a Facebook status can be tied to one’s self-image. According to the results of this survey, older users (who did not grow up with the Internet and often need a calculated reason for updating one’s status) preferred Facebook as their vehicle of choice.

The age demarcation between social media platforms is notable. Although it’s mistakenly thought to be a young person’s game, the use of Facebook has now been declining steadily among teenage users for nearly three years. At the same time, a Pew Research report confirms that more than half of Facebook’s users are aged 65 and older. Most Facebook users typically log on least once per day, and some resort to drastic means if they are unable to access their accounts for any length of time.

Cover of Craig Brod's 1984 book TechnostressAll that being said, the tendency to overshare is not necessarily (or even fundamentally) a bad thing. One could even argue that technology has made us more social, not less. Rather than close us off from the world, social media provides a vehicle for us to find companionship during times of personal turbulence, often exposing us to support resources that would otherwise be unavailable. This wasn’t always the case with the digital world. As a point of comparison, here’s an excerpt from Craig Brod’s 1984 book Technostress about one mother’s frustration after buying a computer for her introverted eleven-year-old son, Bill:

“I thought I was doing something good when I bought the computer. I figured Bill would like it and watch TV less. The problem is now it’s the thing he likes to do most. He always had difficulty playing with other kids, but now he doesn’t even make an attempt. I’m sorry I ever brought it home.”

Watch Me Quit

Marina Shifrin dancing in her quit video

In an era where U.S. unemployment figures typically range between five and eight percent (and were as high as 10% in 2009), it might seem oddly inappropriate to celebrate the mundane act of quitting a job—especially when the event is made public at a significant risk to one’s reputation.

Yet, this is exactly what people are doing with their final hours at work. People are using company property and time to choreograph elaborate media happenings, recording them on video and posting them online for a global audience. Although we have no idea who these people are, what they do for a living or why they’re leaving, we are captivated by the spectacle.

Girl holding sign saying "I quit"It’s not difficult to understand why “quit videos” are so magnetic. Nearly everyone who works for a living has been compelled, at some time or another, to seethe silently while enduring an employment scenario that left us wanting more. Perhaps it’s a stupid boss that sets us on edge, or a noisy cubicle placed near the break room. Or it could be the vapid nature of most work environments, a landscape overrun with micromanaging leadership, indecipherable buzzword jargon, and organizations who incessantly bang us over the head about their “commitment to culture.”

Most of us follow the rules of cordial professionalism when leaving our place of employment: we provide two week’s notice, complete the required paperwork, and hand off any projects currently in-stream. We might even have a small party or a round of drinks with our coworkers. We promise to keep in touch, say nice things and move on. It’s all very benign.

Increasingly, though, departing employees are electing to tender their resignations in the form of elaborately staged events. The sheer orchestration required to pull off these stunts is impressive: there’s the coffee shop barista who hired a barbershop quartet, the Renaissance Hotel employee accompanied by a marching band, an insurance salesman dressed as a banana, and the GoDaddy engineer who announced her new puppeteering career via Super Bowl commercial.

And sometimes, the employers fight back. When Marina Shifrin quit her job by dancing to a song by Kanye West in front of 18 million viewers, her viral legacy was cemented (including a number of copycats). However, her former company countered the attack with a video of their own, taking advantage of the opportunity to elevate their name in front of a newly-expanded audience.  Today, Ms. Shifrin writes for Glamour and tweets about orange juice, but one gets the sense that her fleeting celebrity will sustain the semblance of a career (for the time being, at least).

From the perspective of the departing employee, it’s difficult to pinpoint the intended benefit of quit videos. It could be the chance to become an Internet celebrity that’s so intoxicating, or it could be something more deeply psychological. Quitting a job is an inherently solitary exercise; everyone else is a part of something, and we’ve made a decision to extricate ourselves from it. Perhaps the mass exposure of fame provides a sense of immediacy, smoothing the transition from one social circle to another.

factory workers sitting at tables doing menial laborStill, one interesting aspect of note is that most quit videos begin with a sincere explanation of what we’re about to see. Sometimes the tone is almost apologetic, as if the creators are aware that what they’re doing is borderline inappropriate but Darn it, I was mistreated and my story must be heard. Taken in this context, quit videos operate as a rejection of the flawed organizational dynamics found in many corporate ecosystems.

Smart, creative employees long ago stopped thinking of themselves merely as human capital. Perhaps this form of social media offers a greater good yet to be discovered: the actualization of the self, and a public opportunity to reclaim one’s dignity in the face of dehumanization. Whatever the rationale, Frederick Winslow Taylor is surely spinning in his grave.

I Took a Selfie, Therefore I Am

celebrities taking selfie at some academy awards event

From Hesse to Sartre, the domain of existentialist literature has been preoccupied with a fundamental attribute of self-deception: the disturbing realization that each new insight, no matter how inconsequential, alters one’s relevance to the outside world. The intensity of emotion that we experience from new information is relative to its saliency in defining who we are and how we see ourselves.

This is why people take selfies. In order for us to derive personal meaning from an event or encounter, we need an artifact that confirms our sense of self in relation to the event. At any given moment in Mountain View, someone is taking a photo of themselves in front of the Googleplex — perhaps to show some tenuous connection to what we imagine is happening inside the building. The selfie operates as rendered proof that we have had an impact on the world, even if we’ve done nothing more than simply be a part of it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t exist.

In the classic psychology book Understanding Human Nature, written in 1927 by Alfred Adler, the author suggests that this quest for personal affirmation is inherently part of our makeup from the moment we’re born:

It is the feeling of inferiority, inadequacy, insecurity which determines the goal of an individual’s existence. The tendency to push into the limelight, to compel the attention of parents, makes itself felt in the first days of life.  We orient ourselves according to a fixed point which we have artificially created.

The narcissistic nature of self-portraiture has a long history, from Hippolyte Bayard faking his own death in 1840 to the theatrical self-absorption conveyed by such modern artists as Cindy Sherman. Selfies play a somewhat more universal role in this evolution because they happen in real time, their success metrics publicly available for all to view. As a selfie attracts more “likes” or “followers,” the more it operates as a benchmark to justify the life experiences in which we choose to participate.

However, this doesn’t explain why people feel compelled to take self-portraits when they’re drunk, or while they’re working out, or what they look like when they wake up. It doesn’t help us understand why a 34-year-old adult took a photo of himself in front of his dead uncle’s corpse at a funeral. And it doesn’t even begin to signify the incomprehensible rationale behind taking a selfie at a former Holocaust concentration camp, or at the scene of a crime, or in front of a building engulfed in flames after an East Village gas explosion.

What compels people to do this? In a recent article for the Guardian UK, Jacob Silverman (author of the book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection) describes social media broadcasts as “records of existence and accumulating metadata … the very process of thinking tak[ing] on a kind of trajectory: how can this idea be projected outward, towards others?” He mentions how every moment captured in time presents an opportunity for inclusion — a means to demonstrate that we’re worthy of belonging to a network that might otherwise reject us.

drawing of man taking photo with camera, along with caption "Pics or it didn't happen"In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that taking a photograph “imposes a way of seeing” and “appropriate[s] the thing being photographed.” The selfie represents an interruption in time, presuming our audience possesses an inherent curiosity about our lives. It’s a way to capture a moment as proof (“a band played and I was there!”) at the risk of not actually experiencing it. Putting ourselves literally in the frame harbors a sense of empathy for one’s fellow humans, perhaps a way to convince others that we’re really good people at heart. We made the effort, now here’s the evidence. It’s first-person storytelling without setting up a narrative.

At the same time, the person taking the selfie creates an imposition, fully aware that one’s quest for visibility means stealing precious social capital away from others in the same network. Although the act of taking a selfie in the presence of catastrophe may be in poor taste, the ephemeral nature of social media ensures that any indignation will quickly evaporate. We know there will be something in our feed to replace that selfie within the next 20 seconds, most likely another selfie. It’s less a record of our living and more a temporary justification for having been alive in that moment.

What results is a strange dichotomy in which we actively seek attention to and distraction from ourselves. We want the world to know where we’ve been and what we’ve done; meanwhile, we quickly scan our Facebook feeds looking for something, anything to capture our fleeting attention. Perhaps, as Dr. Adler suggested nearly a century ago, we are searching for ways to conquer our innate sense of inferiority, using self-reflexive media as curator, distributor and therapist.

One thing is clear: our collective preoccupation with self-documentation is becoming a public nuisance. Museums, monuments, and concert promoters have instigated policies prohibiting the use of selfie sticks on their premises. Already, selfie sticks are prohibited at The Palace of Versailles, The Smithsonian, the National Gallery of London, The Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim Museum, The Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And just last week, selfie sticks were deemed sufficiently “annoying” to be banned from the upcoming Lollapalooza and Coachella music festivals.